I want to talk about bullying again. Specifically, the way some adults justify standing back and doing nothing. You’d probably heard it before. “They need to work out their own problems.”
Yeah, that one. A while back I heard it yet again as a way to justify not getting involved, and it struck a deep chord. It’s been bumping around in the back of my mind ever since, bugging me to write about it. So I’m going to try, let’s see how it goes.
Now, I know that non-parents are not supposed to talk about child rearing issues, so I am going to approach this from the only angle that makes sense to me – that of a former child who was bullied a lot. And yep, I was left on my own by adults who may very well have told themselves “they need to work it out for themselves.” At least, the ones who actually paid attention, rather than the ones who simply ignored it or the ones that joined in and laughed. That last group… geesh. I have nothing constructive to say about that last group.
Ok, but this is about that whole idea of letting kids work out their own problems. And you know what? I’m sure that it’s true in many cases. Kids have conflicts, and they learn their skills on how to navigate conflicts by, you know, actually navigating conflict. Thing is, I really hope kids navigate conflict with adult supervision whenever possible. With adults willing to give advice when asked, or step in when things get out of hand. Usually another way to learn things is from people who (hopefully) know that thing better than you do. Much of my learning crochet is from youtube videos – people who know things better than I do, so I go learn from them. Surely learning something as complex and nuanced as conflict resolution calls for the same thing.
Then there’s bullying. Here’s the thing – I am *really* uncomfortable lumping bullying in the same category as other sorts of conflict. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing where it’s best to just leave kids to it to resolve their own problems. The people targeted are already disadvantaged and vulnerable. That’s why they are targeted in the first place. Refusing to step in is just… I don’t even have the words. It’s uncool, ok? We’re not talking about a situation that can be resolved through basic interpersonal skills, or anything close.
So here’s another thing. I internalize things. I always have. I’m sure everyone does and most people try to learn not to as adults to keep negative messages from affecting us too much. Even now, I am really not good at that. I still internalize negative messages; I do it without even thinking about it. It takes me time and distance and work to disengage, pull them out, see them as maybe a message I should keep outside myself. As a child, I did not have ANY of those skills. Messages got internalized and just stayed there. Which means that I internalized and believed the various messages I got from bullying. Even more so given the fact that sometimes teachers joined in.
In any case, the fact that no one stood up for me, even when things were happening right in front of their faces, just confirmed for me that I must deserve it. I was resigned to my bullying. I rarely fought back at all (though many people have stories of fighting back and getting punished for it. Bullies, defended by the system). To me, the way I was being treated was just the way it was.
At some point in my late teens, not long before I aged out of my church’s youth group, someone made a cruel statement to me in the middle of a bible class. I responded as I usually did – lowering my head and feeling resigned to my reality, but for the first time ever, and authority figure spoke up. The teacher was astonished at what was said and how mean it was, and said so! And the person who had made the comment was equally astonished that anyone would call him on it. That was just the way they treated me, no one had ever told them it was wrong before.
I find that really sad when I look back on it. How, exactly, was I supposed to solve my own problems? Even if the idea is for me to stand up for myself, no one can do that unless they believe they are worth standing up for. And even then, without reinforcement, backing, SUPPORT from people in power, standing up for myself would have been unlikely to have done any good.
When calling people on their behavior is so rare that someone can make it to their late teens without realizing that what they are doing is not ok, something is seriously wrong. So yeah, I think adults need to step in. Peers need to step in. We need to quit telling ourselves “it’s not my problem.” We need to recognize that sometimes people are vulnerable and need help.